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A House Divided

Two Spa City Democrats battle it out for the mayor’s office as a Republican candidate waits in the wings

 

By David King

Photos by Chris Shields

 

A tall, mustached man sharply flicks the turn signal of his SUV as he cruises down Caroline Street in the city of Saratoga Springs. “When you have a strong position in the market, you don’t want to only use the break or accelerator to determine what happens. You have to use the steering wheel,” he says, commenting on development strategies for the city.

The man’s name is Gordon Boyd, and he is running for mayor of Saratoga Springs.

It is a Tuesday in August. The sun is shining, the traffic is bearable because the track is closed for the day, and the only hint that fall—with its dead leaves, rain and politics—will soon overtake this beauty are the lawn signs supporting incumbent Mayor Valerie Keehn.

And there are lots of them.

Boyd says he has decided not to distribute signs to supporters until after track season, so as not to “clutter up the city.”

When Boyd first moved to town in the winter of 1971, he says he and his wife paid $80 a month in rent, heat included.

As he describes it, he was a hippie businessman running a health-food store, paying $125 a month in rent for his storefront in a part of town “where people thought strange things happened.”

These days you would be lucky to rent a parking space in Saratoga Springs for $125 a month.

“Things have changed,” he says and laughs.

Boyd is now the owner of Energy Next, a company that buys energy, including natural gas and electricity, at bulk rates for chambers of commerce all over the Capital Region. Saratoga Springs participates in the program, and Boyd says he would recuse himself from decisions regarding “energy procurement” if elected mayor.

As much as things have changed in Saratoga Springs over the three decades Boyd has been a resident, Saratoga Springs has remained a city of tradition, both socially and politically. Although Boyd is not the incumbent candidate, he does have the support of the city’s most well-known power broker, Department of Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue.

In the Democratic primary, Boyd faces Keehn, a candidate who ran on the notions of changing Saratoga Springs’ political traditions, properly managing development and opening the doors of Saratoga Springs’ political backrooms to its citizens.

When Keehn beat the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, Hank Kuczynski, in the 2005 Democratic primary, pundits began to wonder if Saratoga Springs’ entrenched Democratic politicians might be losing their grip.

Running a grassroots campaign, Keehn went door-to-door introducing herself to voters, painting herself as a representative of the average Saratogian concerned about families and workers rather than big developers and Saratoga Springs’ elite.

That November, Keehn led a sweep of Democratic candidates over their Republican challengers. Some declared that the political elite would soon no longer be able to trade patronage for power while kowtowing to rich developers.

Despite a bitter primary, others within the party hoped that Keehn would take time to establish herself and build bridges to the old guard led by McTygue, so that together the city’s leaders could push a unified agenda through Saratoga Springs’ commissioner form of government.

Familiar with the influence of McTygue and the rumors of less-then-above-board dealings that surrounded him, Keehn was determined to break what she saw as McTygue’s stranglehold on Saratoga Springs.

Who was first to insult whom is debatable, but because the relationship between Keehn and McTygue soured before Keehn took office, it was clear that no one was going to get what they wanted. The first obvious dispute between Keehn and McTygue was over Keehn’s decision to replace McTygue’s brother, Billy McTygue, on the Saratoga Springs Planning Board. And for two years, the very public feud between Keehn and McTygue has ensured that the Democratic sweep of 2005 would not yield unity or even, in some people’s eyes, very many tangible results.

YouTube videos posted by Roger Wyatt, a professor of experimental television and a Keehn supporter, show what the discord between McTygue and Keehn has wrought on civility in the now completely Democratic-controlled Saratoga Springs City Council meetings.

At meetings, McTygue has regularly shouted Keehn down, and one of Wyatt’s videos even captures McTygue shining a laser pointer into Wyatt’s camera. McTygue also has the habit of scolding Keehn for not being able to control her meetings.

Insiders say McTygue has repeatedly promised to make Keehn cry during a council meeting.

Wyatt insists that McTygue has had a habit of bullying mayors, and says further that he has footage of McTygue scolding former Mayor Mike Lenz for the same inability to control his meetings—meetings generally dominated by McTygue allies.

“There is an attitude that has permeated our local government for so long that people tend to believe that that was just normal operations,” says Keehn, “and I disagree that should be normal operations in a local government.”

Although Keehn did not initially expect Wyatt’s videos to go up on YouTube, she certainly does not mind the results.

“I think it’s important that the everyday family with two working parents who are concerned about their taxes understand how their government is operating, and that they understand what is happening in those meetings. I don’t expect them to take three hours twice a week to come to a council meeting, but I want to make that available to them. The two YouTube videos that are up of some pretty interesting city council meetings give them a pretty clear idea as to what has been going on in those meetings for the last 18 months.”

“They thought they were getting Blanche DuBois,” says Wyatt of Keehn, “but what they got was Margaret Thatcher.”

And that is where the disparity of opinions about Keehn among members of the Democratic Party becomes quite apparent. Some “Keehniacs” see Keehn as a people’s champion, willing to fight McTygue, the city’s most powerful and aggressive politician, for a chance to change business as usual. Others see Keehn as a bumbling amateur, stumbling into fights she can’t win, while abandoning any hope of advancing policy.

“I would have gone to the big issues,” says Boyd, describing what he would have done if he had run and won in 2005. “I would have gone to parking, water, truck traffic, open space. I wouldn’t have wasted my energy trying to run the public-works department.”

Boyd says both McTygue and Keehn were elected by the people and therefore should be working together. “All five people get elected by the same voters. They are not there to compete with each other. They are put there to work together in the best interest of the city. Whatever party or philosophy or any other sort of difference, you’ve got to set all that aside to do what is in the best interest of the city.”

Keehn insists that she has accomplished the goals she had coming into office, despite being at odds with McTygue.

“I can go home at night and enjoy my family and go to sleep knowing that I’ve done the best thing that I can do and that I don’t have to be concerned or worried about whether or not I’ve continued to live I up to my principles,” Keehn says.

She insists that she has kept her promises by appointing representatives to city government who are not insiders and who share her concerns about development.

“I have brought out things in the structure of our government that needed to be brought out,” she says. “I have tried to have an open dialogue with people and an open city government, and the way to do that is by bringing new people into the process. And I certainly have done that.”

The divergence of opinions about Boyd is even more striking.

While some present Boyd as a crunchy businessman interested in returning civility and efficiency to city government, others insist Boyd is an arrogant snob who functions as a puppet of McTygue and is truly a Republican in Democratic clothing, looking to benefit developers before his city.

“I think that there are entrenched politicians that have learned to play both sides of the political coin,” says Keehn. “And that is not necessarily a bad thing. In politics, you need to be able to work with everybody. But I also think that you have to stand for something, and people want to know what you stand for. If you are going to run for office, you can’t stand on one side and say ‘I’m a loyal Democrat and a true progressive’ when the reality of what you do in your personal and professional life proves differently.”

Boyd says the people who support him do not reflect the kind of mayor he would be: “What I’m proposing to do as mayor is what I’m running on. The people who have endorsed me, endorsed me because of what they think I’m going to do and the leader I’m going to be. I’m not buying into anyone else’s agenda in order to do that. I’m just trying to do what is best for Saratoga Springs.”

No matter how you look at it, most pundits say the 2007 election will be a tough one for Keehn. Her first major policy push for charter change was defeated in 2006, thanks to the efforts of McTygue and Boyd and their group Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Sustain our Success, which is now endorsing candidates for the 2007 election. These endorsements have riled both Keehn supporters and Republicans who say the group is clearly a creation of McTygue and Boyd and has no reason to exist other than to advance their interests.

Some say Boyd, who announced his candidacy in January, has yet to truly “turn it on.” However, Boyd already has more party endorsements than Keehn.

Due to maneuvering within the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee, Keehn did not receive the Democratic endorsement this time around; she did not even bother to ask for it. Instead, it was Boyd who won the nomination after the city committee rejected the recommendation of Saratoga County Democratic Chair Larry Bulman not to endorse a candidate until after the primary. Both Bulman and Keehn thought delaying an endorsement till after the primary could save what little unity was left in the party.

Boyd also secured the Conservative Party nomination, a circumstance that has given Keehn supporters backing for their assertion that Boyd is a Republican in Democratic clothing. At the same time, it has probably made him more appealing across party lines.

Keehn received her first endorsement from the Working Families Party, but only after the WFP was convinced to retract its decision to not endorse any candidate.

According to Keehn, the charter-reform measure she introduced would have rearranged Saratoga Springs’ government so that the she and every other mayor that followed her could govern more effectively.

“At some point there needs to be someone to say the buck stops here,” says Keehn, who, thanks to opposition within her own party, has had to struggle with multiple department heads to achieve even the simplest things.

Saratoga Springs’ form of government leaves power dispersed among five commissioners, who oversee their separate departments and who do not answer to the mayor.

“The charter fight had two sorts of messages to it,” says Boyd. “One was, ‘I’m going to replace everybody else on the City Council who just got elected on the Democratic ticket. I’m going to get rid of our whole form of government.’ ” Boyd insists that Keehn sprang the reform issue on Saratoga Springs and went about working on the issue during racing season, when Saratogians traditionally are busy or out of town.

“She didn’t run saying she was going to replace the form of government. The community was blindsided by the charter commission and then really left out of the process,” he says, “ ’cause it was unfolded during racing season.”

Boyd has a number of caveats about the way he thinks charter reform should be introduced. He says that only after citizens decide they cannot solve recurring problems the city faces simply by voting officials out, an experienced mayor should then spend 18 months working openly on the issue. Boyd says that Keehn jumped the gun by introducing charter reform in her first term and did not have enough experience to get it passed. He insists that a mayor would have to run on the issue, so as to be up-front with voters that they intended to change the city’s entire form of government.

Keehn counters that she spearheaded the issue because of a public mandate in the form of a citizens-group-circulated petition that would have had a mayor/alderman form of government on the ballot in the fall of 2006 whether she was involved or not.

That petition for charter reform had the signatures of many prominent Republicans and Democrats. However, Keehn says that when she started pushing the issue and approached these established figures to be on the committee, they declined and asked her to put off reform again. Keehn says having seen the issue taken up and abandoned year after year by other politicians, she was not willing to let it drop again on her watch.

Ironically, Keehn says that a number of issues Boyd is running on and attacking her for failing to address are issues that, under the current form of government, fall under other department heads, And they are things she could have moved ahead on without full consensus from the commissioners if charter reform had passed. She says the issues Boyd speaks of are those recurring issues that have not been dealt with over decades by simply voting officials out.

Had charter reform been successful, Keehn would have powers comparable to what the average city mayor has. At least in Keehn’s mind, she would be able to act decisively, or at least better negotiate with other department heads.

Boyd brings up one of those issues—truck traffic through Saratoga Springs’ residential neighborhoods—as he drives toward the outskirts of the city.

“The mayor appointed a transportation committee to address transportation needs, but she didn’t bring up the truck issue,” he says. “In these neighborhoods, the trucks are coming through, they are really getting shaken to their bones. And I think we really have to make the truck issue a high-priority issue. You can’t have a transportation plan if it doesn’t address these trucks.”

Keehn says that the issue is not as simple as Boyd would make it seem.

“Gordon wants to blame me for every problem there is in the city,” she says, “and he is not recognizing I’ve been mayor for 18 months and these are problems that have been ongoing and progressive problems over the last 10 to 20 years.”

Policy on problems such as truck traffic has languished in Saratoga Springs for years because the commission form of government does not lend itself to department heads with different agendas getting together to solve problems that may be politically unpopular.

“I heard repeatedly,” says Keehn, “the reason no administrations before ours have ever taken it on is because it’s a loser—it’s a political loser. No matter what you do there will be a neighborhood unhappy about having trucks diverted through their neighborhood. Everybody has a two-year term, and again, it’s the structure of our government that doesn’t allow someone to say, ‘I’m going to take the political heat for doing the right thing.’ ”

However, Keehn has wound up taking plenty of political heat for championing issues that are not popular, especially the charter-reform issue, which has been her biggest political defeat to date.

Boyd slows his vehicle as he approaches Jefferson Terrace, a Housing Authority property, and points. “Here is the public-housing project where there was some controversy about the mayor’s lawn signs,” he says. “They were all out on a public right of way, on public property. And I thought, ‘You know, I haven’t been to many of those units in the last few years, but I have to believe there’s a lot more maintenance projects for that guy to look after than asking those people if they want a sign for the mayor.’ ”

Keehn, however, says she has been to those housing projects and knows that she has supporters there. Keehn becomes uncharacteristically riled when the issue is mentioned.

“I spent many days walking the terraces, and I have spent a lot of time there getting to know the residents,” she says. “And what I heard from most of those people is that no candidate had ever knocked on their door before. I want them to be part of a process they felt left out of for a long, long time. I worked hard to gain their support.”

Keehn says that the most enraging thing about the flap over the signs was that people were insisting that the residents of the terrace should not be able to express their political views.

“I can’t even describe to you the emotion that brings out in me,” she says, “that because somebody lives in federally funded housing they shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the political process.”

Furthermore, Keehn says, her supporter and Housing Authority head of maintenance Gerard Hawthorne, the man who put up the signs, will no longer do so if it upsets anyone in Saratoga Springs.

Boyd says that he feels Keehn has not been responsive to business owners on Broadway who are dealing with high rent, which he attributes to a lack of store space. Boyd points to a recently erected building toward the north end of Broadway and says, “Isn’t that a handsome building?”

“Right now,” says Boyd, “we are losing some of our business to Ballston Spa and surrounding communities.” He says there is a need for more smart development in and around Broadway.

Keehn counters that Boyd is out of touch with the needs of Saratoga Springs’ small businesses and the concerns of Saratoga Springs’ citizens. “All of these bigger buildings that have been going up, independent business owners by and large are not able to afford to rent space in those buildings. They are barely able to rent space in the older buildings that are really set up for small, locally owned businesses. I don’t think there is a direct benefit to our small, local business owners to have all those big buildings going up that have huge spaces that only chain stores can afford to rent.”

Keehn says that she has heard from a number of constituents and tourists who feel Saratoga Springs is losing its charm to chain stores.

“Why would they want to come here and shop at Chico’s when they can shop at the one they have in their town?” asks Keehn. Keehn thinks Boyd’s support of development will scare off many Saratogians who are concerned about the character of their town.

Keehn says she has no interest in halting development all together in Saratoga Springs, and if she did, she would not have enough support to pass a moratorium.

In the end, for Boyd the campaign comes down to his willingness to work effectively together with other politicians. “When I came here 36 years ago, we had a city half the size it is now,” says Boyd. “We would not have gotten bigger if we didn’t have politicians who worked together, who put the best interest of the city first and politics second.”

Keehn is not running to fit in.

“I think this is a campaign about whether Saratoga Springs wants somebody who is truly interested in fighting for the citizens and for our city or someone who is interested in protecting the entrenchment of politics and special interests in our city,” she says. “And, you know, those special interests have been running the show for a very long time. It’s time to let the people have a shot for a change.”

While Keehn and Boyd both insist they are in the race to win it, there is still talk that either Boyd or Republican Scott Johnson, who has remained relatively quiet during the primary race, may be in the race to play a spoiler.

The odds do not look so terrible for either Johnson or Boyd. Boyd has the backing of McTygue, who is known to be able to marshal turnout through his DPW base, whereas Johnson will be facing either one or two Democratic candidates who will have spent months disparaging each other.

Perhaps voters will be tired of the Democratic infighting, or perhaps, as both Boyd and Keehn insist is the norm in Saratoga Springs politics, the people of Saratoga Springs will not vote with a party in mind and instead focus more on the individual.

On a sweltering August day, Keehn and a supporter stroll along Court Street, carrying campaign material and a list of registered Democrats who voted in the 2005 primary. Well-dressed teens trot toward Broadway, cars slow down as their occupants wave or honk at the mayor, and the occasional pedestrian stops to greet her.

Keehn seems to know them all.

Not many people are home on this glittering Saturday, and for Keehn, a lot of doorbell rings go unanswered.

She marvels at how few people actually vote in primaries.

At a corner of Court Street, Keehn stops to visit a household with at least four Keehn signs prominently posted in the bright green turf of the lawn.

Across the street, one house stands out prominently against the modest nature of the rest of the homes on the street; it is the only house with a black iron fence.

“That is Scott Johnson’s house. The man who will be running on the Republican ticket in November,” says Keehn.

“I don’t think we will stop there today. He didn’t vote in the last Democratic primary.”

She pauses for a second and chuckles, “I’ll stop by after the primary.”

dking@metroland.net


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